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La Troupe de Mlle Églantine, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

(Please click on the smaller images to enlarge them.)



Jane Avril, (n.d.)
Polaire, drawing (n.d.)
May Belfort, Jardin de Paris, poster (1883)
La Goulue and her sister at the Moulin Rouge, 1892

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Le Moulin Rouge

Cheret, Lautrec, Picasso, Cappiello, Mucha and Steinlen are the names of poster artists whose craft reached a climax in the late nineteenth-century, as French academicism declined.

The Golden Age of Posters

The Golden Age of posters was France’s Belle Époque (1871-1914) and fin de siècle (turn of the century).  Picasso’s posters are seldom discussed, but posters created by Toulouse-Lautrec, Mucha and Steinlen have remained popular, and only the very wealthy can purchase a poster, or other artwork, by Toulouse-Lautrec.  As a genre, posters were influenced by Japonisme, hence the timing of this post.

Biographical notes: a Crippling Illness

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (24 November 1864 – 9 September 1901; aged 36) was born to a distinguished aristocratic family, in the château du Bosc near Albi.  However, he developed a disproportionate body after breaking one thigh bone, the right, at the age of 13, and a second thigh bone, the left, the following year.  These misfortunes triggered a disease, possibly pycnodysostosis, that caused the broken bones not to heal properly and stopped the growth of Toulouse-Lautrec’s legs.  When he reached adulthood, he was 1.54 m (5 ft 1 in) tall, but his legs measured only 0.70 m (27.5 in).  It was an affliction he resented.

However, Toulouse-Lautrec, a printmaker, a draughtsman and illustrator, loved his art (Post-Impressionism and Art Nouveau) and left for posterity masterfully composed posters, one of his great strengths as an artist.  Some of his posters featured the highly paid can-can dancers of his time: “La Goulue” (1866–1929) and Jane Avril (1868–1943).  When the Moulin Rouge (literally: the red mill) opened,[i] on 6 October 1889, Lautrec was asked to create several posters, all of which helped make the Moulin Rouge famous.  Eventually, the posters that earned him his very own table at the Moulin Rouge, made their creator as famous as the Moulin Rouge.

Influences: Japonisme, Manet and Degas

Toulouse-Lautrec’s artwork shows “flat areas of strong colours” (see Japonism, Wikipedia), as do Japanese prints, except that Toulouse-Lautrec used very strong colours.  As for masterful composition, it was also a characteristic of Japonisme, as was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s linear style.  Posters were an ideal art form because they were drawn and coloured quickly, which lent spontaneity to the genre.  Other than Japonism, Toulouse-Lautrec’s art was influenced by Manet (23 January 1832 – 30 April 1883) and Degas (19 July 1834 – 27 September 1917).

La Goulue and Valentin, the ‘Boneless One’ (n.d.)
(Please click on this image to enlarge it.)


As for can-can (cancanner means to quack) as a dance, it developed in 1830, but was originally a quadrille, a dance performed by two couples, two female and two male dancers, who formed a rectangle.  By 1889, however, it was danced by one female dancer and called chahut (noisy uproar).  It then evolved into a chorus line of female dancers who performed synchronized high kicks, split jumps (le grand écart), an element of dance, gymnastics and figure-skating that has always fascinated the public.  Can-can dancers also “stirred” an uplifted leg, a movement called the rond de jambe (tracing a circle with a leg), and executed “port d’armes” (carrying weapons) “turning on one leg, while grasping the other leg by the ankle(see Can-can, Wikipedia).

Occasionally, dancer(s) turned their back to the public, bent down, lifted their skirts and petticoats, and showed their drawers. This amused spectators and was an erotic movement. “La Goulue” (literally: the glutton) was fond of this little routine. The bottom of her drawers showed a heart, to everyone’s delight.  Can-can dancers wore black stockings, an element of their accoutrements Toulouse-Lautrec used, very successfully, as a compositional device.

(Please click on this image to enlarge it.)
Couverture de L’Estampe originale (cover of L’Estampe [print] originale) (n.d.) 
Salon, rue des Moulins, 1894 (brothel)

La Fin

As Blaise Pascal (19 June 1623 – 19 August 1662) wrote, “[l]e dernier acte est sanglant, quelque belle que soit la comédie en tout le reste.”  (The final act is bloody, however beautiful the entire rest of the comedy.)  In Lautrec’s case, most acts were bloody.  He became an alcoholic and often shared the lodgings of prostitutes, lesbian prostitutes in particular, and caught syphilis.  Just before his death, he spent some time in a sanatorium.  He was buried at Verdelais, a few kilometers from Malromé, the family estate.

Toulouse-Lautrec died at the early age of thirty-six, in Malromé, having created “737 canvases, 275 watercolours, 363 prints and posters, 5,084 drawings, some ceramic and stained glass work, and an unknown number of lost works.”  (See Toulouse-Lautrec, Wikipedia).  Some of his paintings, portraits of Carmen Gaudin mainly, his model for The Laundress (1888), were executed in the garden of Monsieur Forest, le père Forest, in Montmartre.  This was Toulouse-Lautrec’s plein-air period.

German-born French composer Jacques Offenbach‘s (20 June 1819 – 5 October 1880) Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphée aux enfers), features a musical piece entitled Galop infernal,[ii] associated with can-can.  Offenbach, a native of Cologne, was a cello virtuoso.

[i] The Moulin Rouge was co-founded in 1889 by Charles Zidler and Joseph Oller.  
[ii] The dance was first designated as galop (fast running horses), but when the Moulin Rouge opened, it was called “le chahut” (noisy and boisterous).


© Micheline Walker
10 July 2013
The Laundress,
a portrait of Carmen Gaudin, painted in Monsieur Forest’s garden in Montmartre,
c. 1888
(Please click on the image to enlarge it.)
Jacques Offenbach‘s can-can music (from: “Orphée aux Enfers”)
Portrait de Toulouse-Lautrec par lui-même (self-portrait)
(Please click on the image to enlarge it.)